MCA’s 50th anniversary celebrates the now and the next

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“Experience today what people will be talking about tomorrow.”

That has become the mantra of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago as it prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary, and pursue its ever-evolving role as a showcase for all that is new and provocative in the fields of both the visual and performing arts. And while a round-the-clock roster of special events is slated for the weekend of Oct. 21-22, preparations for the anniversary are already well underway.

Originally the brainchild of a group of collectors, art dealers, artists, art critics and architects — who valued the venerable and internationally acclaimed collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, yet felt a powerful need for this city to also have a museum devoted to the creative spirit of the moment — the MCA has grown into one of the most prestigious cultural institutions of its kind in the country, standing alongside the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles,  Mass MOCA and a handful of others.

The idea for such a contemporary art showcase was first formulated in 1964, at the very moment when this country was undergoing a monumental shift in its social, political and cultural nature. Three years later it opened its doors in a small building at 237 E. Ontario, where, as Madeleine Grynsztejn, who has served as the MCA’s director since 2008, proudly notes: “The very first event to be staged there was a Happening that involved composer John Cage and two founders of the Fluxus movement. And that tradition of combining the visual and performative arts has remained a major element of our programming ever since.”

Artist Christo (bottom, foreground, with his team) goes about his work of wrapping the Museum of Contemporary Art with 10,000 square feet of tarpoline in 1969. | Bob Black/Sun-Times/File

From the start the museum was on the cutting edge, with exhibits of the work of Claes Oldenburg and such other Pop Art icons as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg. In 1969 its building became the site of Christo’s first “wrap” in the United States, and was encased in tarpaulin and rope. The MCA also was the first U.S. museum to mount solo exhibitions of the work of Dan Flavin, the Minimalist sculptor whose installations used flourescent light fixtures (in 1967); the great Mexican painter, Frida Kahlo (in 1978, with a “follow-up” exhibition in 2014 featuring artists influenced by her work); and, in 1988, the Chicago-trained Jeff Koons.

That tradition has continued, with innovative shows of the work of South Africa’s multi-media artist and opera director William Kentridge, Polish sculptor and textile artist Magdalena Abakanowicz, the masterful painter Kerry James Marshall and conceptual artist Rashid Johnson. Attracting record crowds in recent seasons have been such pop culture figures as David Bowie and Haruki Murakami.

Kerry James Marshall, “7 am Sunday Morning,” 2003. | Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago/ Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

The major development in the MCA’s history came in 1996 when it opened its current home at 220 E. Chicago, the site of a former National Guard armory. Located on prime real estate, the four-story, 220,000-square-foot building designed by Josef Paul Kleihues made the MCA one of the largest institutions devoted to contemporary art in the world. And from the start it was outfitted with a 300-seat theater Grynsztejn cheers as “prescient” for signaling that “more and more, contemporary art is an amalgam of living performance, media and traditional art.”

Under the leadership of Peter Taub, who for two decades (until 2016) served as director of the MCA Stage series, the museum introduced audiences to an extraordinary array of work by artists both new and established — from the musical ensemble eighth blackbird, choreographer Akram Khan and puppet theater designers William Kentridge and Blair Thomas, to theater legend Peter Brook, and the Elevator Repair Service company, whose 2008 performance of “Gatz,” a seven-hour enactment of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, “The Great Gatsby,” remains etched in the minds of all who saw it.

Scott Shepherd, Susie Sokol, Tory Vazquez, Jim Fletcher in “Gatz.” | Gene Pittman Photo

In recent decades most major art museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago (which opened its Modern Wing in 2009), have embarked on developing contemporary collections. And not surprisingly, this has intensified the competition for new work.

“The contemporary art market has become explosively expensive,” said Grynsztejn. “And that is just one reason why we’ve widened our scope, sending our global team of curators — Omar Kholeif, Naomi Beckwith and Jose Esparza — to actively search out and acquire the work of artists in the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America. For the centerpiece of our 50th anniversary exhibition, ‘We Are Here,’ each of them has organized a show that features artists from around the world working in painting, sculpture, installation, sound, film, and video.”

Kholeif, according to the MCA’s official announcement, “is homing in on those who borrow from popular culture — soup cans, movie stills, neon signage, and floor tiles — to critique its workings. He will include “historical” pieces by Warhol, Rauschenberg, and Bruce Nauman, as well as Chicago Imagists Karl Wirsum and Roger Brown, and also look at the work of Stan Douglas, Koons, Cindy Sherman, Gillian Wearing and others to explore how, since the 1980s, they have engaged with new forms of media.”

Marisol. “Six Women, 1965–66.” | Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, gift of the artist./ Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

Esparza (whose exhibition “I Am You” opens Aug. 19) has “gathered works by such established artists as Francis Bacon, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, René Magritte, Marisol, and Shirin Neshat (plus such younger artists as Jonathas de Andrade and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye), who use personal experiences to illuminate contemporary life.” And artist Tino Sehgal will revive his interactive piece, “Kiss,” which involves two dancers and the crucial element of audience reaction.

Beckwith’s section, the announcement explained, examines how the role of the viewer has changed over time, especially since the 1960s, shifting from passive onlooker to active participant. Included will be Pierre Huyghe’s performative piece, “Name Announcer,” a gallery installation with a town crier who asks visitors for their full names as they enter and then proclaims their names loudly.

The 50th anniversary celebration at the MCA goes well beyond the actual artworks to the physical plant itself, with the building undergoing a major reorganization and enhancement during the past year. The ground floor lobby area has been opened up and modernized, and now leads to a beautiful new restaurant and cafe, replacing the one previously on the first floor. Dubbed Marisol (after the French-Venezuelan sculptor who established a bond early on with the MCA, and donated one of her works to the museum), its walls are decorated with exquisite line drawings and a boldly hued mural by Chris Ofili, the Turner Prize-winning British artist of African ancestry.

The former two-level restaurant space has been rebuilt to create a stunning “public engagement” gathering spot on the first floor that is festooned with 221 cut-metal lighting fixtures that double as planters and were designed by the Mexico City-based designers Pedro & Juana, while the new second floor space is now devoted to educational classrooms with an enviable view, devoted to use by school groups.

“I think Chicago is enjoying a golden age in all the arts right now,” said Grynsztejn. “Many great artists are working here because they can find jobs at the city’s universities, and because there are now many places that show their work, from galleries, to the Smart Museum, the Mary & Leigh Block Museum, the Art Institute and, of course, the MCA.”

So when does a contemporary art museum become a museum of modern art?

Grynsztejn explained: “It’s a flummoxing question, but I think ‘contemporary’ is that point in time when the work is still influencing and making art history, and connects with the moment in terms of artistry and the audience. And the contemporary lens doesn’t have to exclude everything in the past; it’s important to hold a mirror up to what was contemporary ‘then’ and what is contemporary ‘now.’ And I think that’s in the DNA of this museum.”

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Installation view, Jeff Koons: “Words 1979–1988.” | Photo © MCA Chicago

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